Dr Michelle Lim is the Chair & Scientific Chair of Ending Loneliness Together, a Co-Director of the Global Initiative on Loneliness & Connection, and a loneliness researcher at Swinburne University. We asked Dr Lim to share some of her expert findings on the impact of loneliness on us as individuals, on our communities and workplaces.
In 2020, I led the Ending Loneliness Together in Australia white paper (1) that highlighted loneliness as the next critical social, community, and economic issue facing Australia. Loneliness is described as distressing feelings that come up when you feel socially isolated, but differs from social isolation in that it is a subjective experience. You do not have to be alone to feel lonely.
Loneliness was identified as a critical issue for Australians. One in four Australians (2) report problematic levels of loneliness even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. So what do we know about loneliness?
Loneliness happens to all of us
Loneliness is common because it serves a purpose – it is our human signal to ensure we thrive and flourish within a wider network (3). It provides us a signal to look within and revise our current relationships – whether that means increasing their quality, sometimes their quantity, or both. Loneliness doesn’t only affect people who are old and frail, or people who live alone.
Telstra’s research into loneliness shows that one in five people in Australia say they don’t have people they can regularly talk to or turn to, while three in ten say they never or rarely feel close to people.
Many people typically experience more loneliness during social transitions or challenges. One common example is moving from adolescence to young adulthood, where new friendships are forged, and old ones are maintained in the person’s changing social context.
The research also found that we generally misconceive loneliness as something that only happens to other people, and particularly only to older people in the community. However, when asked directly, those aged 65 and over are the generation most likely to say they ‘never’ or ‘hardly ever’ feel lonely. This shows that our sociocultural perceptions of loneliness are out of line with the reality.
Loneliness is painful, but is expressed differently
To feel lonely is to be human. But loneliness remains a highly taboo subject – and it’s often inaccurately portrayed as a personal social deficiency by mainstream media and other uninformed sources. People who feel lonely often hide their feelings and do not express what they need as they do not want to be a burden to others.
A person who is lonely finds interacting with others stressful and in coping with these feelings, may unconsciously appear be more distant or uncooperative, sending an inaccurate signal to others (4). Many people who feel lonely socially withdraw – they might not turn up to opportunities to connect, or if they turn up, they might not fully engage. People who are lonely may look like they don’t particularly need social interaction and may ask to connect with others in subtle ways or indirectly.
Loneliness is bad for health
Loneliness only becomes an issue when it persists over time (or is experienced intensely) – causing a stress response. Loneliness is experienced as a social pain and has been shown to increase the risk of early death by 26%(5). There are many risk factors that drive loneliness too – from our brains, biology, and genes, our personal characteristics to our social environments(6).
Loneliness hurts our heart health, our immunity to fight off infections, and our ability to process information, to name just a few things. Loneliness precede mental ill health, but it isn’t readily thought of as a preventative strategy for mental health.
Loneliness is bad for business
Loneliness can affect employees across different demographics, seniority, and industry(7).
Loneliness in the workplace has been flagged as a critical issue that requires attention, due to the projected economic cost it could impose on businesses. Around 37% of Australian workers feel lonely(8) and nearly a quarter do not engage in any activities to connect them with their colleagues(9).
Loneliness in the workplaces lead to poorer job performance and satisfaction(10), lower organisational commitment(11), and reduced creativity(12). Employees who are lonely also make more mistakes than less lonely colleagues, take more sick leave, and report a higher intention to resign(8).
Unfortunately, the pandemic over the last two years has introduced more barriers to developing and maintaining meaningful workplace relationships. Remote working means we see our coworkers face-to-face less, and it’s also likely that remote working will continue in some form in some industries beyond the current public health crisis.
What can we do about it?
Because loneliness can be a consequence of many factors, there is no one size fits all solution, but we can start somewhere.
Loneliness can be addressed if we enrich our relationships and social networks. We can all make a difference in feeling more socially connected, and we can also help others who may feel lonely.
Here are things you can do today to make that difference.
If you feel lonely
- Understand. First, it’s important to understand that your feelings are normal – and while they feel uncomfortable and distressing, they do not mean you are a ‘lesser’ person. All of us feel lonely at some point, and success is about managing loneliness effectively as we progress through our lives.
- Take small steps. You don’t always have to make more close friends to feel less lonely – you can also have more meaningful social interactions with others and build those relationships over time.
- Connect within. Look within your current network and consider how you can improve the quality of those relationships. Think about how you can make an acquaintance into a friend and develop that connection more deeply.
- Connect out. There are many people out there who feel lonely or who are looking to establish new connections – you’re not alone. Take up an opportunity to connect in your community, where people may come together based on a shared interest.
If you know someone who is lonely
- Look around. People who feel lonely often hide their feelings due to embarrassment and shame. But it’s not a rare occurrence – one in four Australians report feeling lonely at any given time. So, chances are high that there are people who are lonely in your network.
- Be present. ‘Being present’ even when we cannot be physically together is critical to building relationships. Taking some time to check in can help reduce the worries of whoever you’re connecting with, and can set a foundation for building trust.
- Be open to opportunities to connect. Be receptive to requests for conversation, or moments of interaction that don’t seem important to you – they likely are important to the person reaching out to you. For someone who is lonely, these interactions provide moments of comfort and relief.
- Be non-judgmental. If someone reaches out to you, it is important to acknowledge how they feel and not to discount their experience. Loneliness is a subjective experience, and what works for you may not work for them. Hold back on your own suggestions, and ask them what they think could work for them instead. Listening is all it can take to contribute towards helping someone who is experiencing loneliness.
If you need help, mental health support services are available through:
Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Kids Helpline – 1800 55 1800
Things you need to know
1. Ending Loneliness Together. (2020). Ending loneliness together in Australia whitepaper.
3. Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.
4. Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2009). Perceived social isolation and cognition. Trends in Cognitive Science, 13(10), 447-54.
5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.
6. Lim, M. H., Eres, R., & Vasan, S. (2020). Understanding loneliness in the twenty-first century: an update on correlates, risk factors, and potential solutions. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 55(7), 793-810.
7. Zumaeta, J. (2018). Lonely at the top: How do senior leaders navigate the need to belong? Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 26(1), 111-135.
8. Reventure, L.t.d. (2019). Workplace loneliness: Solutions for the growing epidemic.
9. R U OK? and iCare. (2017). The Australian Workplace Psychological Safety Survey.
10. Şantaş, G., Işik, O., & Demir, A. (2016). The effect of loneliness at work; work stress on work alienation and work alienation on employees’ performance in Turkish health care institution. South Asian Journal of Management Sciences, 10(1), 30-38.
11. Ozcelik, H., & Barsade, S. G. (2018). No employee an island: Workplace loneliness and job performance. Academy of Management Journal, 61(6), 2343-2366.
12. Peng, J., Chen, Y., Ying, X., & Yaxuan, R. (2017). Workplace loneliness, leader-member exchange and creativity: The cross-level moderating role of leader compassion. Personality and Individual Differences, 104, 510-515.